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On Key Security Issues, 45th Munich Conference Awaits Signal From Washington

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Chancellor Angela Merkel at a Bundestag debate in October over German troops' mandate in Afghanistan.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Chancellor Angela Merkel at a Bundestag debate in October over German troops' mandate in Afghanistan.
MUNICH -- It is inevitable that the 45th annual Munich Security Conference on February 7-8 will be overshadowed by the emerging policy priorities of the new U.S. president, Barack Obama.

Obama's policy decisions will define much of the playing field for the world's other leading powers, among them the EU with its leading member states, Russia, and, further afield, China. All three have in recent years expressed a preference for a more multilateral -- or multipolar -- world order, wherein the United States would not be the lone agenda-setter.

U.S. power may be on the wane, but the EU, Russia, and other emerging global players are discovering this will not make for a simpler or more manageable world.

The title of the main discussion panel at Munich, "NATO, Russia, Natural Gas and the Middle East," says much about the versatility demanded from any aspiring world power. The title also offers a concise summary of the main challenges facing Obama. His top concerns, Afghanistan and Iraq, are part and parcel of the woes affecting the Middle East and, beyond it -- mostly via the growing radicalization of Muslims -- the entire world.

Afghan Aims

U.S. policymakers have in recent weeks indicated that Iraq's relative significance is decreasing, while Afghanistan now presents the most demanding test for Washington. Addressing the Senate Armed Services Committee on January 27, a week after Obama's inauguration, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Afghanistan is the "greatest military challenge" facing the United States.

The Obama administration has said it intends to deploy 30,000 extra troops to Afghanistan in addition to the roughly 70,000 international forces present in the country already -- half of whom are American.

But what remains unclear are the longer-term intentions of the United States. Gates' remarks and a leaked report from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the top U.S. military body, suggest the U.S. emphasis is shifting from nation-building to counterterrorism measures, with a focus on eradicating Al-Qaeda sanctuaries in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Leading analysts also increasingly commend a strategy of disengagement. Writing for the intelligence site on January 27, its founder, George Friedman, said the U.S. surge in Afghanistan will not work if its aim is to fight the rural Taliban, who can outlast it. The overriding U.S. interest in Afghanistan is the covert counterterrorist mission, while the overt operations will wind down gradually. "The Taliban ruling Afghanistan is not a threat to the United States, so long as intense counterterrorist operations continue there," Friedman concludes.

Analyst Anatol Lieven said in the "Financial Times" on February 4 that the long-term aim should be "a radically decentralized Afghanistan in which the Taliban can be permitted to take over much of the country in return for a guarantee -- under threat of aerial bombardment -- not to give shelter to terrorists."

Like Pakistani commentator Imran Khan, writing in the latest issue of "Forbes" magazine, Lieven argued that any Western military presence in Afghanistan will only provoke fiercely independent Pashtun communities to rebel.

U.S. plans for Afghanistan have a direct bearing on the policy choices of its European allies and Russia. For Moscow, Afghanistan is largely a matter of geopolitical leverage. As insurgents assault the southern supply routes in Pakistan, a functional northern alternative via Russia and the Central Asian countries -- which Moscow regards as its sphere of influence -- becomes vital.

European allies, on the other hand, are likely to follow Washington's apparent policy shift with a mixture of trepidation and dismay. Trepidation because it requires larger troop commitments from them in the short term, and compensation for any U.S. withdrawal from the "overt" mission in Afghanistan in the longer term. Dismay because giving up on democratic aspirations would upend the main rationale behind the European allies' expenditure of money and lives since 2001.

Washington's Influence With Moscow

On a global arena, too, Washington's allies and Russia are liable to discover that the contours of the putative new "multilateral" world are still disproportionately shaped by its largest inhabitant, and that in important respects they remain clients of the U.S. foreign-policy agenda.

Russia looks to that agenda with an eye on its bargaining power. In addition to its influence in Afghanistan, Russia's permanent seat on the UN Security Council makes it a key player with respect to Iran -- although its leverage would evaporate if the need for sanctions were to disappear.

Where Russia will enjoy a new importance is Obama's third policy priority after Afghanistan and Iraq -- arms control. The U.S. president has said he wants to negotiate a successor accord to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which will expire at the end of 2009, eventually bringing the number of both countries' stockpiles of nuclear warheads from the current 5,000 to 1,000.

Obama has reportedly enlisted the aid of former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in convincing the Russians to sign on to an arms-reduction treaty. There has been speculation in the press that Vice President Joseph Biden, who will be attending the Munich conference, will announce a deal as soon as this weekend.

It seems inevitable that Washington's interest in securing Russia's compliance in this will spur Moscow to use that leverage. Brakes on further NATO enlargement is one likely Russian precondition, and the scrapping of plans for missile shield installations in Poland and the Czech Republic another. An article in "The Daily Telegraph" on February 6 speculated that Biden may announce the suspension of the U.S. missile-defense plans.

George Friedman, this time writing in "The New York Times" on February 3, ventured that the Russian wish list may also feature a U.S. commitment not to set up NATO bases in the three Baltic countries. Under this scenario, Polish and Baltic demands for NATO contingency plans against a possible Russian attack would also be condemned to fall on deaf ears.

Key Russian Interests

Much of this Russian leverage, if put into practice, will in turn have consequences for Europe.

Paradoxically, however, key Russian interests -- preventing Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO, and scrapping the missile-shield plans -- are foreshadowed in the EU's own aspiration for global emancipation. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel wrote in a joint letter, published in "Le Monde" on February 4, that although Ukraine and Georgia remain eligible for NATO membership, the alliance's expansion "must at the same time contribute to the stability and security of the continent, which will also benefit Russia."

In one of the more observable characteristics of the emerging multipolar world order, the smaller players are finding their room for maneuver increasingly squeezed, having to continually balance multiple outside interests.

The Sarkozy-Merkel letter also shed some light on the logic behind the EU's aspirations for a greater global role -- which is predicated less on the bloc's growing prowess and more on an assumption of a U.S. decline.

The two leaders first observed that "no single country is today able to resolve the problems of the world on its own," then predicted a change in the U.S.-EU relationship and concluded that this means "unilateral decisions would contradict the new spirit of our relationship."

Effectively, France and Germany are making a bid for joint supremacy in regional matters that also involve the United States. As part of a strategy to cement that supremacy, France will rejoin NATO's military command structure at the alliance's summit on April 3-4 after a hiatus of 43 years.

But in its eagerness to stand at eye level with the United States, the EU tends to forget that Russia's rise, in addition to presenting another argument for a more multipolar word, also serves to expose the bloc's own soft underbelly.

The British historian Timothy Garton Ash warned in "The Guardian" newspaper on February 5 that "there will be no European foreign policy unless there is a European Russia policy." And, he added, that there can be no Russia policy without a European energy policy.

The bloc's largest member state, Germany, gets more than 40 percent of its gas from Russia and has in recent years assiduously cultivated collaboration with that country in a number of related fields, including nuclear energy. Germany remains the main proponent of the Nord Stream natural-gas pipeline and also backs South Stream. Both Russian pipeline projects have been condemned by many Eastern European leaders as being in direct competition with Nabucco, the EU's attempt to lessen its dependence on Russia and establish direct links with Central Asia.